Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Down to the Delta

Go west, young man, and seek your woodpecker!

March 10, 2008

Green Frog, Maury City, Bells, Halls, Frog Jump ... this was not a part of Tennessee I was at all familiar with. Other than the freeways, my only prior experience in northwest Tennessee consisted of my Breeding Bird Survey route up near Reelfoot Lake. That had been enough, though, to let me know this was a very different world than the Hill-'n'-Holler country where we live. My home county is dissected plateaus, forests, ravines, steep slopes, streams with sparkling clear water over rock and cobble beds. This was flat, vast open fields broken by wooded riparian corridors and windbreaks, and in summer hot, steamy, and buggy. I had learned that biogeographically it is also a strange place. Warbling Vireos, Tree Swallows, and Baltimore Orioles nesting among baldcypress was not a combination that made sense to me. On my current journey it was winter, and the gently rolling fields had a decidedly midwestern feel to them. I could easily imagine I was back in eastern Colorado if I didn't look too closely, especially if I didn't focus on the western horizon where the absence of the Rocky Mountains was rather a giveaway.

Beyond Frog Jump was Porter Gap, which indeed was a gap in the traditional Appalachian sense, but on a smaller scale. Cresting the rise at the west edge of the Chickasaw Bluffs, I looked out over the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, colloquially called "the Delta" even this far north, stretched out about 100 feet below me and seemingly flat as the surface of the sea. It was almost as wet as the surface of the sea as well. The Mississippi had been rising steadily, backing up the tributaries and turning the fallow fields into sprawling shallow lakes. After descending the bluff, the state highway effectively became a causeway, with the wind-tossled floodwaters lapping right at the shoulder of the road on both sides in some spots, only a few feet below the pavement. Where the flood had not yet claimed the entire area of some fields, huge flocks of blackbirds swarmed along the diminishing shoreline, presumably feeding on all manner of critters that had been pushed out by the rising water. If I had bothered to stop and make estimates I likely would have set new personal high counts for some species.

I didn't stop, however. The whole scene had put me in a very strange frame of mind. The reason I was making this trip was peculiar enough -- looking for Ivory-billed Woodpeckers? In Tennessee? Get serious, bro! The unfamiliar and somewhat disorienting countryside, combined with a foreboding flat gray sky, added to the rather unreal sense of it all. But the strongest trigger had been the water. If you're an old-time swamper, like me, then rising water just gets your blood pumping and your mind racing. It becomes instinctive, a conditioned reflex. Anything can happen when the water starts climbing. It's both exciting and intimidating. And... I didn't have my boat. Scott had suggested that there was not likely to be a real need for it, so it was still back at home ditched in the weeds on the shore of the pond. Not only was I traveling into unknown country on a ridiculous quest in the face of rising floodwaters, I was also not properly equipped. Nothing to do about that now.

Back to my driving directions. From here it was north on Great River Road, and about three miles to the entrance to the site. Crossing over the Obion River and then landing on the Mississippi River Levee, I pondered then as I still ponder now: What is the point of a huge levee fortification along the Mississippi that just ends like this at the mouth of the Obion? Wouldn't seem to provide much impediment to the movement of floodwaters in either direction. As directed, I turned east off the levee down the fairly good-condition gravel road, continued a bit to the edge of the woods, and found the sign: Moss Island Wildlife Management Area. Judging from the old, faded, and beaten condition of the sign, this was not one of the flagship units of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency's network of WMAs. The fact that the sign was not visible until after you had already turned off Great River Road and travelled several hundred yards into the backwoods also suggested this was not a place that was a great draw for visitors from beyond the immediate area.

How we wound up here was the usual long story, involving the traditional mix of strange and inconclusive tales from locals and TWRA staff. As I haven't cleared the names and details with all involved I won't go in to them here. What really set off the search was that two day period in late February when Scott finally had an opportunity to check out the place, starting a flurry of "detections" in a short time and a small area. On the face of it, this spot does not seem a likely candidate. In my own surveys of aerial photos across the southeast, I had passed off all of the delta region of Tennessee as too fragmented to warrant much attention. Moss Island was just another one of these fragments, and not even especially impressive or large within that context. As I drove down the main road what I saw seemed to confirm my remotely-sensed impression On my left was pretty but unremarkable bottomland forest (flooded, I noted with a twinge of anxiety... why hadn't I brought the boat?), on the right were fields that still remained high and dry. Well at least Moss Island was indeed a bit of an island; you learn quickly in the swamp world, though, that "island" means "doesn't flood quite as often." It does not mean "dry land."

Scott's directions were to head to the end of the road at the turnaround at Rhodes Lake, and wait. In the initial work done so far, that was the "hot zone." It was now early afternoon; he and Melinda would be meeting me at around 5:00 p.m. I continued in, past the the house where the island's entire permanent resident population (one family, four people, variable numbers of dogs, cats, and chickens) resides, and through more fields, now on both sides of the road. A buteo flying low over the fields to my right caught my eye -- long-wings, languid flight, check that one out. It perched atop an old pecan tree in the fields, I got my optics on it -- yes, Rough-legged Hawk! A first for my sadly neglected Tennessee list, and a bird that has always thrilled me, even in our Colorado days when they were a common winter sight. As pleased as I was to see this handsome creature, it also added to the "where am I and what am I doing here?" sense of the expedition. Seriously, when you are looking for Ivorybill habitat, a Roughleg does not seem like a promising sign. Talk about species with antipodal habitat requirements!

But then, another few hundred yards down the road, that biogeographic hash that is west Tennessee worked its tricks. I dropped down a small slope, entered the forest, and suddenly I was in the swamps of the Deep South. The road was lined with canebreaks, the leafless oaks, sweetgums, maples, and other hardwoods were not huge but they were not shabby, and my swamper soul was right at home. Later I would learn that right near where I had spotted the Roughleg, a few days before Bob Ford had spotted a Common Ground-Dove. I was beginning to figure out that when you are here on the western fringe of the state, you should pretty much be prepared for anything.

Now that I was back in my old familiar world, in a swamp with the river rising, I was not at all surprised when the road disappeared under the water before I reached the designated rendezvous spot. There was a white pickup with Federal plates parked in a pullout just before the water, which I guessed was probably Bob's. Well I had at least brought chest waders, if I didn't have a boat. I suited up and started slogging onward into the swamp. By this time the sky had mostly cleared, the wind had subsided, and the bird activity was picking up. One of the things about these swamps is that, especially in winter, they really don't have a particularly birder-tempting avifauna The most common species are things like Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, Carolina Wren, and Red-bellied Woodpecker -- species you can find easily in the average suburban backyard. It's not a place for a twitcher. As a consequence, of course, birders spend disproportionately little time in these habitats. Swamping is really more a total environmental experience than a birding trip.

My slog was cut short fairly quickly. Even with chesters, I was dangerously close to topping my waders just a little ways farther down the road, long before reaching Rhodes Lake. It seemed my afternoon of sitting and watching would happen back at the edge of the water near my truck. So back I went, encountering Bob on my way. He had a boat, clever fellow, and was wrapping up his day. He filled me in on the latest news, headed out, and I had the WMA to myself. This left me a couple of hours to sit, listen, and ponder what on earth I was doing here.

Double knocks. That was the main thing that had been found here, and in many other places. I had never quite gotten this "double knock" thing. I had heard the recordings, and read the discussions, but it seemed like such a non-specific sort of sound. I hadn't had the opportunity to hear other Campephilus species' double knocks in person, so I didn't really know first hand; but it just seemed, like cavities and foraging sign, to be a tenuous and vague thing. Listening to the woods around me, I heard all sorts of knocks, bangs, and bumps. Some were animals, some were plants, some were trucks going over the bridges on the adjacent highways making rhythmic "whump-whumps" on the expansion joints, some were the loud bangs and clanks and whams from the barge loading and unloading facilities a few miles farther west along the Mississippi, some were the inevitable and ubiquitous gunshots that never seemed to stop in the rural South no matter what was going on with hunting seasons. How the hell would you single out a "double knock" from this racket?

As dusk was nearing, Scott arrived and we finally met face-to-face for the first time. I think he must have been warned that I was not a typical looking birder, as he seemed unphased by my two feet each of hair and beard. Well, actually, his first words were "Holy crap!" but that was directed at the water level rather than at my hirsuteness. Melinda arrived shortly afterwards, and was equally shocked by the lake where the road had once been. These were my first clues that my co-searchers were not old-time swampers (not yet, at least; they'd earn their credential pretty fast in the coming weeks). I looked at the conspicuous line on the trees marking the typical annual high water mark, and it was still above my head. I looked at the water several meters below this line, and wondered what the fuss was about. We had a long way to go before this would rate as a significant flood. It turns out that though Scott and Melinda had been working in the bottomlands along the Mississippi for two seasons, and Melinda had done a stint in Arkansas with the Cornell project, they had been doing so during a severe drought. They had no image in their heads of how a more typical hydrograph translated into what the real world would look like, and were a tad dumbfounded when confronted with it. Lacking this experience or these instincts, they had installed reconyx cameras and autonomous sound recording units on trees way below that high-water line of demarcation on the trunks. An urgent rescue mission was planned for the next morning.

Scott supplied me with maps, and went over them with me summarizing the area and the activity. Moss Island is situated in a large rightward bend of the Obion River, just above its confluence with the Mississippi. The WMA is roughly circular, containing a large reversed "C" of forest abutting the Obion, with a finger of open fields intruding in the central area and large open parcels on the south. The entire area is only a few kilometers across; all told there might be 5 or 10 km2 of forest. The areas closer to the Obion consist of ridge and swale topography in long sweeping arcs paralleling the river with quite a number of oxbow lakes. Farther west is higher terrace physiography; that is "Moss Island" proper. Our current parking spot was, of course, where the terrace drops off into the swales; hence the deep water just to our east. There was only this one passable road through the forest, jaggedly bisecting the backwards "C" from west to east and terminating at Rhodes Lake. Other than that it was ATV trails -- unmaintained, unmapped, and often indistinct -- and trackless wilderness. We went over where the observers had been standing during each incident, and the estimated distances and directions of what had been heard. It sure did look like whatever it was, it was clustered pretty tightly in the Rhodes Lake area.

After we watched and listened to the swamp growing dark, Scott led the way to the Comfort Inn in Dyersburg, which had become headquarters for the nascent expedition. Tomorrow Scott and Melinda were planning to head out via canoe to rescue the equipment; I would figure out somewhere that I could explore on foot, given that the previous "hot zone" was inundated.

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